Ake Sellstrom, the head of the UN chemical weapons investigation team, arrives in Damascus yesterday.
UN inspectors tasked with investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria arrived yesterday in Damascus as fierce fighting raged in the coastal heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s clan.
The fighting in Latakia came as Assad vowed again that he was determined to “eradicate terrorism” which he blames for the deadly conflict that has plagued his country for the past 29 months.
The conflict has fuelled a massive exodus out of Syria, with nearly 2mn refugees seeking shelter in neighbouring countries and thousands more crossed into Iraq in recent days, the UN said.
A team of more than 10 inspectors arrived at the Four Seasons hotel in the Syrian capital to begin their hard-won mission which UN officials have said will last two weeks.
The mission had been repeatedly delayed over differences with Assad’s regime concerning the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms in the Syrian war.
Both the government and the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad accuse each other of using chemical weapons.
The regime admitted in July last year for the first time that it has chemical weapons, threatening to use them to protect the country against Western military intervention but “never against the people”.
At the time, US President Barack Obama warned the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would constitute a “game-changer”.
On Thursday Damascus said it has “nothing to hide”.
The UN team is led by Swedish arms expert Aake Sellstroem and is expected to investigate Khan al-Assal, near the northern city of Aleppo.
The government says rebels used chemical weapons on March 19, killing at least 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers, but the opposition says government forces carried out the attack.
Two other sites—Ataybeh near Damascus and Homs in central Syria—are also expected to be inspected for attacks that reportedly took place in March and December respectively.
The mission is tasked to assess if chemical weapons were used during the conflict that erupted in March 2011 - but not to determine responsibility for any such attacks.
“Our goal remains a fully independent and impartial inquiry,” the UN said on Wednesday after receiving a green light from the Syrian government for the mission.
“The government of Syria has formally accepted the modalities essential for co-operation to ensure the proper, safe and efficient conduct of the mission,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman said at the time.
On the battlefield, fierce fighting raged in the coastal province of Latakia as the army pushed an advance to recapture villages seized by rebels in the hinterland of Assad’s Alawite minority community.
Rebels positioned in remote enclaves of Latakia’s mountains launched the “battle for the liberation of the Syrian coast” about two weeks ago.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army sent “massive reinforcements” to Latakia to fight the rebels and “bombed rebel areas heavily”.
State television said the army reclaimed rebel positions in the province, including Kharata, Janzuriyeh, Baluta, Baruda and Hambushiyeh.
But according to Abdel Rahman, “the army has only been able to secure the outskirts of some villages. The battles are ongoing and they are fierce.”
“Scores of foreign (jihadist) fighters are being killed in the Latakia fighting,” he said, including a Libyan emir or local leader of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The air force also struck several rebel positions in other parts of Syria yesterday, a day after violence killed at least 124 people nationwide, the Observatory said.
Opposition National Coalition chief Ahmed Jarba, meanwhile, told a Saudi newspaper that rebel fighters control nearly half of Syria and the coming months would be “decisive”.
In an interview published yesterday, Jarba also told Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat that Syria is now being run by regime allies Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, with Assad out of the picture.
Assad is “a killer and a criminal, and... he has collapsed,” the National Coalition chief charged.
The opposition leader reiterated the rebels’ insistence that any settlement must exclude Assad, demanding that he be “punished for the war crimes he has committed against the Syrian people”.
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in mid-March 2011, the UN says.
Assad “no longer runs Syria. The real rulers of Syria are the Iranian (elite) Revolutionary Guard... with the participation of (Lebanese Shia) Hezbollah fighters,” Jarba said.
Tehran is Assad’s main regional backer, while Hezbollah has sent in troops from Lebanon to help the army fight the anti-regime rebellion.
Jarba said that supplying the rebel Free Syrian Army with sophisticated weaponry would “change the course of the revolution”, despite Western fears that the arms could land in the hands of extremists.
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